Choosing my non-fiction favorites of 2017 was hard, y’all. I had a difficult time narrowing it down to ten, and then picking my favorite top three was damn near impossible. It was just a really fantastic nonfiction year! My top three (I think?) are listed first, and everything else is listed in alphabetical order.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (2017)
Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78; he wrote 78 essays and 78 poems to work through his complicated grief. It’s beautiful and devastating (Alexie actually stopped mid-book tour for his own mental health and will not be doing readings from this book anymore). I read it in one long sitting.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore (2017)
Young women in New Jersey and Illinois went to work in watch factories, painting a radium on watch faces to help with the war effort. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. They were informed that the radium was safe; in fact, it was one of the healthiest things to handle. Then they began dying in horrifying, disfiguring ways.
Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (2007)
At the age of four, Danticat was left in the care of her aunt and uncle in Haiti while her parents immigrated to New York City. They sent for her when she was twelve, so she came of age in a foreign land. Back in Haiti there was dangerous political unrest, and her father kept urging his brother to join them in the States. What happened when he finally did left the family shattered.
Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78. His relationship with her was always complicated, as was his grief over her death. This memoir, composed through 78 essays and 78 poems, teases out those complexities.
Alexie and his three siblings were raised by two alcoholic parents; they would throw crazy parties at their home where the very presence of some of their guests was potentially dangerous, and his mother in particular could get violent when drunk. Alexie recounts some alcohol-fueled scenes from their childhood that literally endangered their safety. After one particularly terrifying episode, his mother vowed that she would never drink again, and she kept that promise, a decision Alexie credits with being the reason he is still alive.
Be that as it may, Lillian was still far from perfect. She was a liar and an abusive woman; she and her son went through various levels of estrangement through the years. She was a terrible mother at times, and as an adult, he refers to himself as a terrible son. But he loved her nonetheless, and these emotional dichotomies are what make the book.
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is Top Ten Things You’re Thankful For (it can be bookish or not). I went with bookish. As you might imagine, this is a really really really hard topic to narrow down. These aren’t necessarily my top ten favorite books ever (although they’re up there), but each left its mark in some major way. They’re listed in alphabetical order, and all of the links lead to Goodreads.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
There aren’t enough words to describe how much I love this book. It’s also always a huge hit with my students, many of whom are reluctant readers. I only use one chapter in class, and they always ask for more (if I could assign the whole book, believe me, I would).
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I think this is the first “school book” that I ever took seriously (and that was in college, which is a terrible and kind of mortifying thing to admit!). It was also my first Morrison book. I think it was just kismet: the book came to me at exactly the right time and we clicked.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
I know. You are shocked.
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
A big chunk of my MA thesis (on images of Mexican immigrant motherhood in Chican@ literature) was based on this book. The storytelling is fabulous. It’s one of my favorites.
I was up in Austin this weekend for the Texas Book Festival. After years of having my plans fall through at the last minute, I finally made it up there for the first time ever. (Sherman Alexie was a big part of my “I AM GOING THIS YEAR NO MATTER WHAT” mentality.) I spent October buying books in preparation for The Big Weekend. I combed through the list of authors that would be there, pulling their books from my shelves and setting them aside to be signed. Meg Wolitzer! Claire Vaye Watkins! Aminatta Forna!
Y’all, I am a complete dumbass. Because Saturday arrives, and what do I do? I LEAVE ALL MY BOOKS AND MY MONEY IN MY CAR BACK AT MY FRIEND’S APARTMENT. *headdesk*
So I was kind of sulky for a minute on Saturday, since the closest I got to Meg Wolitzer was seeing the back of her head from outside the signing tent. Our schedule also got thrown off, so I missed a few of the panels/authors I really wanted to see.
On the bright side…
The day started with Literary Death Match. Jonathan Lethem was a contestant and A.M. Homes was a judge. That was fun (I loved his reading of his Drew Barrymore stories). Later that day we sat in on a YA panel about Girl Power. We also caught part of the Claire Vaye Watkins/Zachary Karabashliev panel called “America the Beautiful?” Both authors write about the country in dark, often violent ways, so that was intriguing (have you read Battleborn yet? Because you’re missing out). Karabashliev, a Belgian author who now lives in California part time, commented on how much Europeans hate that American authors write massive 500-700 page novels these days and talked about what a nightmare it was for translators and publishers to produce.
Publisher/Year: Recorded Books, 2011 (book first published in 2003)
Length: 10 hours, 53 minutes
Narrated by: Lisette Lecat
What it is: Kambali is a privileged, 15-year-old Nigerian girl growing up under the harsh rule of her abusive father, a well-respected man in their community. A brief stay at her aunt’s house shows her just how different life could be, but a military coup soon shatters her peaceful environment.
Why I read it: I had never read anything by Adichie (I know, I know), so I figured I should start at the beginning.
What I thought: I wanted to like this book more than I did. Parts of it were amazing. Adichie was wonderful at creating the tense atmosphere as a result of the domestic violence taking place inside Kambali’s home, and this fear extended to nearly every aspect of Kambali’s life, guiding her actions and shaping the way she interacted with others. At fifteen, she’s soft-spoken and naive about so many things that girls her age — even those less privileged — take for granted. But overall, I felt it dragged too much and was at times a chore to get back to. It probably didn’t help that the narrator was the slowest reader ever.
Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie
Publisher/Year: Grove Press, 2012
What it is: A collection of old and new short stories, mostly dealing with male Native Americans from Spokane.
Why I read it: I’m an Alexie fan.
What I thought: Of all the Alexie books I’ve read (I think this was the fifth) this is definitely the one with the darkest undertone. About half of the stories had been previously published and I’d read several of them, but much of the newer material had an angrier and sadder edge to it. As with most of his books, his characters often face the some of the more common problems affecting Native American communities — mostly racism, alcoholism, depression and poverty — and the stories only show a tiny snippet of the characters’ lives. There were a few weak stories, but it was interesting to compare his older and newer work side by side.